- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The VA has yet to fire or punish the senior managers in Phoenix who retaliated against whistleblowers who revealed massive dysfunction at the department, despite an internal audit from more than a year ago that said the two executives deserved to be “appropriate administrative action” or firing.

Reports obtained by The Washington Times show the Veterans Affairs Office of Accountability Review said Dr. Darren Deering, chief of staff the VA’s Phoenix facility, lashed out at Dr. Katherine Mitchell after she reported the secret wait lists that ignited a national scandal last year, putting her on administrative leave and eventually forcing her to flee her job.

Investigators also concluded Lance Robinson, the hospital’s associate director, retaliated against Paula Pedene, a legally blind public affairs officer at the hospital, who was stripped of her duties, forced to give up her work email and cell phone with no notice and sent away to work in the basement library after reporting misuse of hospital money to higher-ups.

Dr. Deering remains on the job in Phoenix while Mr. Robinson has been removed from his position but has been collecting full paid leave since May 2014, pending the investigation.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were stunned that the VA had ignored its own internal recommendations for so long, saying it was a black mark against a department already struggling to show it can be accountable.

“The fact that VA’s top leaders have likely known about these issues for more than a year and haven’t acted on the reports’ disciplinary recommendations severely undercuts the credibility of the department’s repeated assertions that whistleblower retaliation will not be tolerated,” said House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican.

The VA said that they have not issued any punishment, but said it’s still a possibility for both employees deemed to have retaliated.

“VA is reviewing the voluminous evidence collected through those investigations and will impose appropriate discipline based on all substantiated misconduct, including but not limited to whistleblower retaliation,” Victoria Dillon, a VA spokesperson, said in an email.

Dr. Deering and Mr. Robinson did not respond to a request for comment left through a VA official.

Dr. Mitchell has become a national figure after she revealed the secret wait lists the Phoenix VA kept, cooking their books to make their processing numbers seem better so executives could collect performance bonuses, even as dozens of veterans died while waiting for care.

Investigators concluded Dr. Deering, rather than fixing the problems Dr. Mitchell raised, lashed out at her, kicking her out of her emergency room post.

He was scheduled to testify at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee field hearing in Arizona on Monday, but was removed from the witness list at the last minute when the senators learned that he was under investigation for whistleblower retaliation.

Dr. Mitchell, meanwhile, said the investigative report into retaliation only scratched the surface of the problems, and investigators didn’t even interview other witnesses she provided to corroborate her accounts. Without still more examples of retaliation, she said she was not sure that leadership would be convinced that they need to take disciplinary action.

Dr. Mitchell, Ms. Pedene and a third Phoenix whistleblower, program analyst Damian Reese, were given a confidential settlement for the harassment they went through at the hands of the hospital’s senior management. But without punishment for those who retaliated, the hospital is unsafe in the hands of those with bad judgment, Dr. Mitchell said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“What I’m most concerned about is that there’s someone in a leadership position at Phoenix who has shown they are not capable of making decisions for VA and therefore not making good decisions for veterans,” she said. “It’s not on a personal level, it’s about what’s good for the facility and what’s good for veterans.”

Rep. Tim Walz, Minnesota Democrat, said the VA needs to make sure whistleblowers feel comfortable stepping forward if the department is to embrace accountability.

“When you look at these, a lot of these incidents that we’ve found out about have come from whistleblowers, that’s how we know about them. And that’s fact,” he said. “We’ve got the IG reports and IG investigations, but those almost always came after the whistleblower.”

The VA often puts employees on paid leave while under investigation by the agency’s inspector general’s office or the Justice Department, but Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson announced last week that process would come to a halt.

“We can’t let issues languish unresolved in protracted IG or Department of Justice investigations for months and years. Our past practice has been to wait for these investigations to be complete,” he said. “We’re done waiting.”

But only when leadership take whistleblowers and their protections seriously will doctors feel safe in the agency, Dr. Mitchell said. Until then, she urged medical professionals to stay away from the VA.

“Until they make it safe for physicians to speak up, until the central office decides to stop this, I cannot recommend that any physician join the VA, as bad as we need physicians,” she said. “And we need them badly.”

• Anjali Shastry can be reached at ashastry@washingtontimes.com.

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